Punishing us for that packet of Maltesers

The proposal that officials should tax chocolate is further evidence of the moralism driving the ‘war on obesity’.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

It was perfect phone-in show fodder. Last week, a doctor proposed a motion at the British Medical Association conference in Scotland: that a tax should be imposed on chocolate. Amazingly, this speculative idea at an event that no one pays attention to inspired a kingsize selection box of comment.

Dr David Walker proposed that a 20 per cent tax be levied on chocolate, arguing that a 225g bag of chocolate sweets could contain 1,200 calories – that is, half or more of a person’s daily recommended calorie intake. And the concentrated nature of the calories in chocolate means that this huge calorie rush can be wolfed down in no time at all. ‘What I’m trying to get across is that chocolate is sneaking under the radar of unhealthy foods’, said Dr Walker (1).

It’s hard to take Dr Walker’s proposal seriously. Would a person inclined to demolish a half-pound bag of chocolates in a single sitting really be deterred because the bag costs £2.40 instead of £2? Meanwhile, everyone else who enjoys a bar of chocolate – costing roughly 50 pence and containing a mere 250 calories – would be penalised for no good reason. Even if the tax did lead to a small reduction in chocolate consumption, it seems unlikely that it would have any impact on people’s waistlines. It is by no means obvious that going large on confectionery is a major cause of obesity.

Indeed, there is little sign of a scientifically coherent case for what actually has caused the population, on average, to get fatter in recent years; nor is there enough recognition of the fact that this rise in obesity may well have plateaued, at least according to figures for England. Moreover, the evidence suggests that being obese is nothing like the death sentence many imply it is. While being very overweight can no doubt be very inconvenient, even debilitating, for most people a spare tyre will have little impact on life expectancy.

As the American critic Paul Campos once argued on spiked: ‘The health risks associated with increasing weight are generally small in comparison to those associated with, for example, being a man, or poor, or African American. These risks tend to disappear altogether when factors other than weight are taken into account. For instance, fat active people have half the mortality rate of thin sedentary people, and the same mortality rate as thin active people.’ (2)

So, the chocolate tax wouldn’t work and is almost certainly unnecessary. But that didn’t stop commentators coming up with a veritable pick’n’mix of alternative taxes. Sarah Vine in The Times (London) suggested a tax on sugar generally, offering the scientifically dubious justification that ‘not only is refined sugar (as distinct from naturally occurring sugar) superfluous to our diets, it is also the one thing that if consumed in excess when young can lead to a short and unhealthy life’ (3). In the past, researchers have proposed imposing ‘junk food’ taxes to help save us from ourselves – yet as the debate about junk-food advertising on TV has shown, working out which foods are ‘junk’ is rather tricky.

Restaurant critic Giles Coren has the most consistently repellent view on food taxes. Repeating a petulant argument he made on TV back in 2006, Coren argued that a chocolate tax would be a good idea because obese people should be made to pay more to cover the health costs of their moral weaknesses, and to save jolly healthy, slim people – like Coren – from having to hand over wads of cash to the health service.

All of this reveals that the obesity debate is not really about health. There’s an unhealthy class element to this health obsession; talking about obesity is one way of dividing the feckless from the morally upstanding. Being thin is a modern equivalent of the Puritan notion of good works: your actions – attending the gym, eating salad, avoiding fat – are proof that salvation has been granted, as illustrated by your slim form.

Our doctors, though, think we can be saved and that it is their job to save us. As I go to my local health centre in inner-city London, I walk past a line of silver Mercedes by the front door, no doubt paid for by meeting all those government health targets about our lifestyles. I can only anticipate the prodding, weighing and lecturing that I’m about to receive for my unacceptably large paunch, despite the fact that there is so little evidence to suggest that being thinner would make me any healthier.

Incredibly, some responses to the chocolate tax idea have suggested that doctors should stop mucking about and give the obese a no-holds-barred lecture on their habits every time they enter the surgery. From my experience, it’s a struggle to get doctors to stop the sermons and actually attend to the health complaint I’ve come to see them about. From women’s magazines to lifestyle supplements, from public information campaigns to television shows, we are bombarded with the message that fat is bad and thin is good. What more can doctors do – except perhaps to hit us over the head with a blunt (fiscal) instrument like a chocolate tax?

The proposal to apply a tax to one particular kind of snack food is only the most ludicrous example of the lifestyle micromanagement directed by the government and implemented by doctors. As one disgruntled viewer asked in an email to the BBC’s Breakfast news programme this morning, why doesn’t the government just take all our money off us and hand us a voucher to spend on just those things the authorities approve of? A succession of governments, utterly devoid of an inspiring idea between them, have turned to scaring us sick – sometimes quite literally – in their desperate desire to connect with and regulate our lives. The medical profession has been the most vociferous cheerleader and enthusiastic enforcer.

So here’s a little prescription for doctors: know your place. It is not your job to provide policy advice on behaviour-altering taxation. Your role is to allow us to do all the bad things we enjoy for as long as possible, not to condemn us to some miserable, tee-total life of rabbit food and smoke-free air.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons reviewed Gary Taubes’ The Diet Delusion. Patrick Basham and John Luik argued that it’s possible to be fat and fit, and said that sending kids to fat camps was a waste of time. Paul Campos attacked the obesity myth. Sandy Starr mourned the the passing of the King Size Mars bar. Or read more at spiked issue Obesity.

(1) Chocolate should be taxed to control obesity epidemic, doctors are told, Daily Telegraph, 13 March 2009

(2) The obesity myth, by Paul Campos

(3) A tax on chocolate? Utterly idiotic…but a surcharge on sugar would be sweet, The Times (London), 13 March 2009

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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